I often refer to myself as a mainly self-taught guitarist, but this isn’t really the whole truth. When, in my teens, I finally committed to learning to play, I was fortunate to have a cousin, who was a few years ahead of me on the learning curve. I remember the two of us sitting with our song books open, copying chords and talking about how to play the different positions. I learned my first strum pattern from her, and she helped me to see how some difficult positions could best be executed. There were many other musicians after her that explained technicalities and theory to me, and, most importantly showed me how to make my hands do what the instrument required to get the song I was looking for. So, I am not a self-taught musician. I am the product of a dynamic, changing and helpful community of musicians who were able to demonstrate the skills I was slowly developing.
Jesus employed exactly this method to create his new community based on the principles of God’s Reign. In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the writer urgently lays the foundation for the story he is trying to tell. He introduces us to this Jesus very quickly, showing us the prophesied preparation that happened with John the Baptist and revealing God’s call and approval of Jesus in the baptism narrative. Then, he gives a quick overview of Jesus’ message – really just outlining in the briefest terms what the essential content was – and a brief description of the start of Jesus’ new community in the calling of the first disciples.
Once this basic foundation is laid, Mark then moves into the next phase of his narrative purpose – showing us what this Reign of God actually looks like. Last week in the Revised Common Lectionary the Gospel showed us what the impact of Jesus message was – his authority was immediately recognised, and even supernatural powers found themselves unable to resist it. Now, in this week’s pericope, we are shown what the new community that Jesus was forming looked like. It’s as if the writer knows that we don’t just need to hear the message – we need to see it in action. In order for us to learn how to live as participants in this new community, as practitioners of Jesus message, we need those who have gone before us to demonstrate the skills we are trying to learn. That’s exactly what Mark offers us in these few verses.
To begin with, we see Jesus interacting with the sick mother-in-law of one of his new disciples. There is a touching particularity to this scene, played out in the privacy of Simon and Andrew’s home. Here we cannot help but notice how specific Jesus’ care is, and how much he valued the individual as a person. The description of Jesus going to her bedside, taking her hand and helping her to sit up is surprisingly detailed, in spite of the brevity. There’s a lovely comfort in seeing how Jesus meets each person at their own specific point of need. But, then, Mark adds in another little detail, which would seem insignificant if we didn’t already know that Mark was not given to putting any extra padding on his account. He notes that once her fever has left her, Simon’s mother-in-law serves Jesus and his disciples a meal. The point is clear – she has been served, and so now she immediately responds in service. This is the beginning of Jesus’ plan in action – a community of people who not only receive God’s grace and healing, but respond by becoming channels of that grace to others.
After the intimacy of this scene, Mark once again zooms out, to the community who, after sunset (once the Sabbath was officially over) gather at the door of the house seeking more of the life-giving ministry of Jesus. From the particularity of his care for Simon’s mother-in-law, Mark now shows Jesus ministering to a whole community. In this way Mark shows how God’s Reign comes both to the individual and to the world as a whole. It is not either “for me” or “for us”. It is both, at the same time. And, again, the result of Jesus’ ministry has the same impact on the community as it does on the individual.
Mark doesn’t specify details – he doesn’t have to – but the scene makes it clear that this new community of Jesus now gets to work. Among the crowds would almost certainly have been those who had helped their sick, disabled or demon-possessed friends get to Jesus. There would have been hospitality offered, since this was the custom of the time. Perhaps Simon’s mother-in-law ended up feeding more than just Jesus and his friends. There would have been some organisation necessary to ensure that each person was dealt with in an orderly fashion. Perhaps there was even some crowd control. It may have been Jesus who did the healing, but the ministry was a community affair, getting the disciples and the townsfolk into the work of service right away.
Finally, Mark gives a third glimpse into how this Reign of God operated. Early the next morning Jesus makes space to care for himself, going off alone to pray. He can do this because he knows that he now has a community that will keep things going while he is away – and they do, as evidenced by the fact that the people have found the disciples and asked them to find Jesus. The mission is working, and for it to continue to work, Jesus must ensure that he cares not just for the individuals who come to him, and not just for the crowds who will seek him out, but also for himself. It is out of this moment of self-care that Jesus receives the next step in his mission, and so when the disciples find him, he explains that it’s time to move on and serve other people in other towns.
If Mark wanted to give a complete, a three-dimensional, picture of God’s Reign at work, so that his readers would know how to put their faith into practice, he couldn’t have done it better. His description of these first couple of days of Jesus’ ministry reveal, in remarkably few words, a community that provides individual attention and care, community collaboration and care, and personal self-care. It’s a picture of a new community in which receiving and giving grace go hand in hand, and in which each person, in their own way, can contribute, whether by cooking meals, helping friends, or taking up the slack so someone else can take a little time off.
There is no such thing as a lone follower of Christ. Nor is God’s Reign served by those who give without receiving or receive without giving. Mark’s vision is amazingly simple, but, given his economy with words, amazingly rich and diverse. You cannot read this account without feeling like you’ve had the workings of God’s Reign explained and then demonstrated. All that’s left for us is to emulate what we’ve seen so that others, in their turn, may learn from us.